Tag: religion

Peace, Weakness and Bravery at Summer School

As I mentioned last monday, I was at a Drama summer school last week. Luckily I got all the nervousness and fear out of my system the year before, where I was painfully unsure of myself until a rapid turnaround on the wednesday. By the last day I was filled with happiness and determined to return next year, and be brave for every minute.

So I did. I arrived at the train station and gave my assistance the instruction to find ‘someone who looks like they are running a summer school’.

“So I’m looking for someone in walking boots then?” he replied. I made a non-comital hum in response. But sure enough there was a group of theatre school goers, fronted by a man in walking boots.

Reunited with old friends and meeting new ones I was certainly in my element. The aim of the summer school is to create a professional piece of theatre within a week. This year our theme was peace. I was over the moon to be on the ‘flying colours’ course again, working with the same tutors and many of the same young people who I got to know last year.

I don’t tend to start a new paragraph when talking about my sight, frankly it isn’t worth the bother, but I will make an exception this time. Being the only visually impaired person in a summer school of ninety-nine can make you feel like a bit of a burden sometimes. Theatre is fast-paced and I hate being the one who needs to slow it down to understand what is going on or what I need to do. I was lucky enough to be in the course with the same tutors and many of the same young people as last year. They understood that I wanted to do everything that all the others were doing: no exceptions. People who are new to the theatre school quickly caught on to this too. The tutors are brilliant, and I get on with them so well that if I feel the need I can confidently say: “Don’t you bubble wrap me!” (it has been done). I met new tutors too, including an amazing lady called E who did her very best to audio describe things to me- leaving us both in stitches.

The first half of the week consisted of devising. We were given vague outlines for us to form our own improvisations around. When time was up we performed in front of the group whilst being audio recorded by P, our writer. I particularly enjoy doing this because I just let my mind go and I can be whoever I want for a bit.

The tuesday night is always a long one for writer P. He  stays up all night piecing the audio bites from his Dictaphone into a juicy meal of a play. This year this meant that he had to write until 5am, at which point he got the other tutors up to cast the script. The next few days were hectic, sometimes rehearsing until 11pm until our act was tight. This year the play was a series of satiric scenes on world issues. This included a classroom of dictators and a gameshow for how they can kill their people best. It was very dark humour, but above our heads shocking facts were projected; showing how our acting didn’t stray so far from the truth after all.

Weaved into the summer school is religion. I am only semi religious, but I enjoy this part a lot all the same. It is my chance to have conversations with people my age I don’t usually get to have. For example: “Was Jesus really the ultimate image of peace?” and hearing those who just announce openly: “Jesus was really a pretty cool dude” is fantastic. At my secondary school that kind of thing would get you picked on for weeks.

So was I brave all week? No. In fact I was weaker than last year. A couple of years ago a consultant told my parents and I that I get tired. Not just the normal kind of tired which everyone gets. I get that too, but what happens when I get truly tired is my body and mind just can’t do anymore. It’s because of my eyes, not helped by my muddling mind- “she has to go three times around the lap when everyone else goes around once”. I could write a blog about this alone. Despite being told by multiple professionals that I need to be rigorous in my bedtime routine in order to keep healthy, I’ve always struggled to do this while trying to be ‘typically teenage’. Plus chronic insomnia from my messy mind doesn’t help matters. But for the first time since school I felt the effects of this additional tiredness setting me apart. Of course, everyone was tired at half ten when it was announced we had to carry on rehearsing for another thirty minutes. But my tiredness meant I got ill. Slumping and almost too tired to speak the first time this happened V, a tutor, told me: “You don’t have to be brave all the time you know”. I apologised, I got angry with myself, but then I accepted it. Yes, I can do everything everyone else is doing, but I just have to pace myself a bit.

A masking-taped stage brought our group’s journey to an end. The performance went really well and thanks to the masking tape no unintentional crowd surfing was done. The group was as close as could be. And I felt… free. Free to praise, free to try and free to be tired. I didn’t have to pretend I could keep going. I just had to be brave enough to admit that I had already given my 100%.

The group hug on the stage, which has high visibility tape around the edges.

Living in a Charismatic Commune

It is the end of college term and I have appeared with a rucksack and a guide dog at a Christian community house. This was a planned trip, I know someone who lives here and in need of somewhere to stay I took her up on her offer of a bed.

The house is large, almost like a stately home, with five acres of green space spanning it’s perimeter. On entering I was ushered through a bustling kitchen and into a room of many chairs. I had previously thought that a psychiatrist’s office is the place with the most chairs in this world, but this room was serious competition. I was directed to a large leather sofa facing the centre of the circle of chairs. I had been guided by the hand of T, a Northern man who I initially thought had a verbal tic; he seemed to say ‘bless you’ between every sentence. We talk about the city we both coincidentally come from and I am introduced briefly to the many faces coming through the room conveyer-belt styli.

I started to become aware that the people around me were intensely kind. They were interested in my story and my view of faith. Everyone ate together in the room of many chairs, starting with the grace accompanied by guitar and then everyone being served from large pots fresh from the kitchen. It reminded me of brownie and guide camps from the past.

Over the ten days I got to know all the residents in the community. I made friends and got into the routine of living in such a big group. Everyone refers to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ so this makes it feel even more family like, though a family of twenty plus people would be pretty impressive. Staying in such a religious environment was great as it gave me an opportunity to ask all of my questions about christianity. I also learnt how to knit, bake many cookies in one go, walked in sunshine, sang and played the guitar.

On sundays two meetings were attended. One was for the ‘serious and committed’ christians. Everyone was hugging and dancing, at first I found it slowly overwhelming and felt personally that the sermons were too overbearing. I viewed this meeting as an outsider, so instantly felt a bit removed from the praising. However the second sunday meeting was for those who needed ‘milk not meat’. This I found a lot better, I felt I could join in more and I could follow the sermon easier. I have always loved modern christian music and hearing so many people belting out the words was very powerful.

I also met and played with some lovely children who are growing up surrounded in this environment. I asked one eight year old what the best part of community was, and she said: “There’s always someone to play with”. Noodle had a good time, being generally adored by all and playing with the other guide dog in the house. Overall an amazing experience.

Noodle chasing after me on a tyre swing

A small girl in a tyre swing
“I’ll be the ballerina and you are the mermaid who teaches me to swim. Like God.”

“God will give you your sight back”- Why I’d Be Pretty Peeved.

I am currently staying in a Christian community house. It’s a long story. Up to twenty people live under this one roof and many more pass through the doors on a daily basis. Being here has the feel of being a part of the world’s biggest family and I’ve met so many interesting people with amazing stories to share. I will write more about living in community on Saturday… But for now here is a good old-fashioned Thursday cuppa blog…

My week has been mostly spent walking, sleeping, cooking, playing and (sort of) praying. It has been hectic. On Tuesday evening, a few nights into my stay, I was approached by J. J is a young man from Africa who has come here as a refugee. He is one of the most passionately religious people I know and is a lovely person to be around. I was eating my nightly satsuma at the table in the community room whilst having a theological discussion with him when he said this:
“God is telling me that if you follow him you will be healed, you will regain your sight.”
My heart instantly dropped. I will admit my respect for him then faltered.
I’ve been here before, in fact at one point my own Dad used to hide pictures of saints under my bed asking them to heal me. When I told him politely that I didn’t actually want to be healed he seemed slightly shell-shocked.

The truth is, though I have only had sight loss since the age of eleven, I can remember far more of the past few years than I can of the ones where I had full sight. I think you do the most growing in your teenage years, and I’ve done that now as a VI person. It is what I’m used to. I would have to relearn things if I got my full sight back- what is pretty/ugly, how to understand shower controls with my eyes rather than my hands, how to look for somebody in a busy place.

In all honesty I like being sight impaired. I feel that the world is more beautiful through my current eyes. The way colours mix and blur together, the way I can see through my hands and the way I am not constantly bombarded with visual distractions. I live in a calming blur, the kind most people need pricey drugs in order to achieve.

Now don’t get me wrong- having sight problems is by no means ideal. I’d love to be able to read normally and not have to worry about mobility and vision aids etc. But the truth is… If God gave me my sight back I would be pretty peeved. I am happy just the way I am.

So thanks, but no thanks.

This Thursday's cup of tea

Talk to the Face, the Dog’s not Listening

Sitting in the church it was the average scene for any 10:30 am gathering. People bustled between each other for how-do’s and pleasantries. It was my second time here but the congregation seemed to have changed enormously, the many small children and their parents had probably headed somewhere for the holidays which left the slower of the worshipers to hold fort.

We prayed enthusiastically, we sang even more so, and it was all very nice. Then a sermon. Though I understand the concept of God and my faith in him is slowly building after an amazing time at a christian summer school, my principles remain untouched. The sermon went along the lines of sharing the word of God, however seemed totally out of sync  with the modern world. It was suggested that we bring up God in conversation with our atheist friends, our acquaintances and even people we meet in shops. I couldn’t help but find myself thinking how this probably wouldn’t be doing me any favours as a ‘let’s talk about God’ line with my local butcher would probably earn me only a smack in the chops. Our preacher then went on to exclaim how ‘as long as we have faith’ we will always have food, clothes and everything essential to live. Because God will provide it.

This is one hurdle in my religious journey that I struggle with. How can I accept that, when I know about the starving people living on the streets? The alone, the ill and the hungry. Are they not praying hard enough? If this is the case God doesn’t seem very charitable. Terrible things happen that make people lose faith; that doesn’t mean they should be given up on. Food doesn’t miraculously appear for those who pray, like some kind of halo-scanning drive through, Christians go to Tesco like everyone else. Though I (like many others) will be thankful for the food and the money we use to buy it, but it is through our own doing that we can feed ourselves. We can thank God for numerous things in the process of creating, buying, preparing and eating food but at the end of the day we have to do the leg work- and it costs. I am in no doubt that the people in Syria (a used example in the sermon) are desperate for food. They must long for it with every inch of their dwindling energy. So are they hungry just because they aren’t Christian and praying to the right God? In my opinion that is not cool.

After the service I faced misconceptions of my own over tea and biscuits. I am used to life with my guide dog and the often unwanted buzz that it brings. During a conversation with one lady she stopped mid sentence and went into a high and squeaky voice and fussed my dog. A voice of that pitch could only belong to a ‘dog lover’: the kind of people I see on a daily basis who say things like “I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help myself…”. I politely ask that Lai is not stroked at the moment. I can feel that my dog is a little jumpy, a fly (her chase toy) appears to have accompanied us into the room and I want to keep full control of her so she is on her best behaviour in this new environment. She doesn’t say anything, and seems to have taken this personally and disappears. Minutes later she reappears, however this time she brings with her a daughter.

“Go and introduce yourself to Lai.”

For a moment I think, hope, that she has just mistaken our names but as I focus I see that she is gesturing towards my canine companion and her daughter is launching herself on my guide dog. I remake my point, feeling slightly bad and a little confused, and the woman makes her apologies once more and we all join a group of happy chatters.

A minute later I am spoken to by another lady. I am happy to make conversation and chat but she seems to have her mind set on one topic only. Blindness. More specifically mine.
“Are you able to get about a bit then?” She asks. I notice instantly the way her tone has gone from friendly to pitying but holds no hesitation in asking the question. I tell her that I am independent and travel a lot, in fact I am living at a residential college in september. I restrain the cheeky voice in my head telling me to ask her the same question with a gulp of my tea. Though I answered pleasantly she seems a little surprised with my response, like she would expect the contrary.

“Have you always been blind?” She asks quickly. I have had this kind of conversation before with strangers, but never have I felt quite so interrogated. I explain that I am not completely blind, that I was born blind in one eye and the other eye’s sight deteriorated a lot when I was eleven. Her response was:

“That must of been traumatic. Did God bring you through?” It felt as if she had mixed up her expression. The first statement was said briskly as if she were making observation of the weather, and the latter like I was a dying kitten under a four by four. I decided to be honest: No actually, God didn’t bring me through. I looked for God but couldn’t find him. I had to do a lot of work myself and be strong. It was tough but you do what you have to do. Well… maybe I didn’t manage quite that but it went along those lines.

Without a beat she passed onto the next question. I couldn’t understand what her intention was, she hadn’t passed any comment on any of my responses. I am fine with people asking one or two, well thought out, questions about disability to me. I see that as helping spread awareness of visual impairment, however I just felt uncomfortable with this interrogatory style and her expectation that my life is limited and confined.

“So have you managed to get some kind of education?” She blasts on. I tried to work out whether her choice of words was intentional or just unfortunate but couldn’t come to an exact conclusion. I respond with yes, that I am waiting on the results of my GCSE’s and in september I will go to college and study Psychology, Sociology, English Literature A levels and Braille. She doesn’t know what to say and was clearly not expecting me to of had any kind of education at all. She muttered something about how she hopes I do well in my GCSE’s, and that A levels are very hard, before moving away.

I found my Dad who was happily chatting away to a man who appeared to be more the type of person you would expect to be in a church. He was polite, could hold a conversation and had a sense of humour. He also appeared to be the husband of the dog-loving lady from earlier. Conversation is light hearted about christianity and the structure of the church but the topic, as usual with strangers, turns to my guide dog.

“I won’t stroke her because she’s wearing that harness” says the man smiling. I smile gratefully back and am just about to ask him how long he has lived locally when his wife steps in.

“I just got told off for doing that.” I am completely taken aback. She doesn’t sound jokey or lighthearted, just outright bitter. I am confused and can feel little bubbles of rage popping in the back of my brain. It doesn’t happen often that I get angry, but the collective attitude of the people I had met seemed so negative, so confrontational, so backwards. There seems to be something inside me that says I shouldn’t even feel anger in a church, let alone show it, so I suppress it and smile.

“Please don’t feel like I was telling you off, I just needed to say that it isn’t a good time to stroke her right now.” She looks affronted. I can tell that in her mind she is seeing me as a rude teenager who shouldn’t of come to her church in the first place. Her husband steps in:

“Is it detrimental to their training if they are fussed?” He asks, keeping his lighthearted tone. I am so tired of this now. I become more and more aware that two out of the three people who had spoken to me seemed to see me as nothing but a chauffeur for an amazing dog or a disability to be examined. I decide that I might as well be honest.

Yes, it is detrimental to their training. Guide Dogs are constantly being trained and having their training reinforced by their owners. I depend completely on her to act perfectly in all kinds of social situations, and most importantly I put my life in her hands on a daily basis to live an independent life. Though people want to stroke her, sometimes I just can’t let that happen because I need her to stay calm and ready to receive commands. It is a lot harder to keep control of a dog which is over excited and I, as her owner, can recognise when it is an ok time for her to be petted and when it isn’t. And sometimes… just sometimes… I like people to talk to me rather than her!!

Well… maybe something like that… I am far too polite for my own good sometimes. Dad could sense my tension so we thanked them for the service and the tea and left. As soon as I stepped out of the graveyard I erupted into flames. I really do not feel anger often, I like to stay calm and hope that people will do the same around me. But this time I was furious.

If you are reading this thinking that this is a rant about religious people’s attitudes towards disabled people, stop. I know lots of religious people and I am religious myself. This is the kind of attitude that many disabled people face day in, day out, no matter where they are. It just happens that the most concentrated experience of people misjudging me was at a religious building on a summery sunday morning.

When in doubt of what to talk about to a disabled person, stick to the weather.

Image of a chair with a light bulb above in a dimly lit room.  interrogation